Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Theistic Compatibilism

First, some remarks on the language of ‘theistic compatibilism’. These remarks are not a direct reply to Byrne’s two arguments, but attempt to counter possible misunderstandings that his language indicates.

In Eternal God an attempt was made to separate two claims:

1. That the divine ordination and sustaining of everything down to its last detail, including every human action, is a case of soft determinism, the doctrine that determinism is compatible with human moral responsibility.


2. That divine ordaining and sustaining is consistent with soft determinism.

(1) is obviously distinct from (2), in the following way: (1) is the view that the divine ordination of human actions is an instance of a thesis (or set of theses) which is, considered historically, about the implications of the creaturely determinants of creaturely action. (2), by contrast, asserts merely the consistency of the divine ordination of everything with at least one version of soft determinism. The two differ on account of the fact that it is asserted that the connection between the divine ordination and creaturely compatibilistic systems is set up by a Creatorly determinant, not a creaturely determinant: the divine ordination is not a creaturely cause in the way that human beliefs and desires are creaturely causes. My argument in Eternal God was merely that if creaturely compatibilism is consistent with human responsibility then a fortiori such responsibility is consistent with Creatorly compatibilism. As I put it

It will be argued that if we suppose that theism is true, and that therefore God ordains and sustains everything by his creative power, then this fact does not provide an additional difficulty for theism. If non-theistic determinism is compatible with freedom then, it will be argued, theistic creation is as well. (EG146)

The point of comparison is between God’s ordaining and sustaining on the one hand, and philosophical determinism on the other, even if what God creates and sustains is an order best understood as a philosophically deterministic order. Later on in the book I referred to possible additional difficulties that allegedly attach to the idea of theistic creation and responsibility, (EG 147) and distinguished on the one hand between human freedom and determinism and human freedom and theistic creation (EG 149), and between the thesis of general determinism and that of God’s creating and sustaining activity. (EG 153) On one occasion the claim that creation is compatible with responsibility only if determinism is was explicitly denied (EG157), and arguments couched in terms of God ‘setting up’ deterministic processes were discussed. (EG 162) It was not argued that divine ordination is itself a straightforward instance of philosophical determinism, and for the purposes of my ad hominem argument against Flew which we will shortly discuss there was no need for me to develop or subscribe to some version of philosophical determinism. In arguing against Flew I needed only to employ whatever version of determinism that he subscribed to.

So in the language that was used there was a consistent attempt to distinguish between what (in more theological terminology) might be called immanent cause-effect relations, such as those between human desires and beliefs and the actions they prompt, and transcendent cause-effect relations, where God is the ordainer of all human actions, including all their immanent causal antecedents. This distinction was signalled by using different words to refer to God’s causal activity (words such as ‘create’, and ‘ordain’) from those used to refer to immanent cause-effect relations, (words such as ‘cause’ and ‘determine’). In general the phrase ‘theistic determinism’ was avoided, except occasionally when it was used in an ad hominem context (e.g. EG 157), just as claims such as ‘God determines human actions’ or that he is the ‘all-determining cause’ were avoided. Otherwise it becomes difficult to keep the distinction between (1) and (2) in mind.

In the twenty or so years following the publication of Eternal God I have occasionally had the opportunity to develop this point of view, that Creatorly causation (or ordination) has a different sense from creaturely causation. For example,

God is the source of all creaturely power, but the powers of creatures, even when efficaciously empowered by God, are really theirs, and so are distinct from his. If God efficaciously empowers me to type this essay, still the typing of this paper is my action, not God’s. The wicked men who crucified Jesus were the cause of his death, even though he was crucified by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God (Acts.2.23)

One way of expressing this difference might be as follows. While it seems clear that intramundane causation is transitive, that if (where A, B and C are events) A causes B, and B causes C, then A causes C, there is no necessary transitivity in the case of any causal aspects of features of the divine willing permission, if there are any. It is not necessarily the case that if God governs by willingly permitting some event B, and B causes C, then God causes C; rather, God may will by permitting that B causes C and so willingly permit C. God’s willing permission is thus not a straightforward case of causation, and those who seek to assimilate God’s willing permission of evil to the actions of someone manipulating a puppet, or to hypnotism, or to brainwashing or programming, have not recognized the true character of such permission.
Judging by the language that he uses in characterising my view, Byrne misses the distinction between (1) and (2). Thus he says that Helm ‘takes Flew to task for talking about an all-determining God as a manipulator of human beings, someone who reduces human beings to mere puppets and then blames them for what he forces them to do. Such language is dismissed as anthropomorphic and castigated for missing the main point that the divine causation of human acts goes through the normal patterns of desire, belief and intention that are the sources of non-compelled human agency’. (HG196.) But the actual remarks referred to at this place have to do with the character of causal determinism, and not with the character of divine ordination. So it is claimed

General determinism does not claim that the antecedent causal factors manipulate. ‘Manipulate’ is a piece of anthropomorphism. The causal factors are usually non-intentional in character, without plans and aims, but causally sufficient for the bringing about of certain intentional, voluntary actions. The question of having or not having the agent’s consent, or of going or not going against his wishes, does not arise. (EG152)

My point here is not to argue that God does not manipulate his creatures, (though in fact I do deny that) but that if he does (as Flew claims) then, on Flew’s own atheistic determinism, so do our genes manipulate our actions. It is an ad hominem argument, no more and no less. So Byrne has overestimated my willingness to assimilate standard causal determinism to God’s creative and sustaining (and providential) activity, to say that such activity is a case of such determinism. I deliberately allow for elements of disanalogy, and of apophatism, in our understanding of divine activity. After all, the book has to do with divine timelessness. The significance of this fact will be considered further, in the closing section.

Byrne’s First Counter-Argument

I turn now to Peter Byrne’s first counter-argument to my claim that (despite the point just made about apophatism) there is a significant parallel between theistic creation and sustaining on the one hand, and general determinism on the other, and that if general determinism is consistent with human responsibility so may divine sustaining be. Arguing in support of Antony Flew, Byrne claims that there are ‘customs and institutions associated with human responsibility because human beings possess characters and all that pertains thereto – patterns of belief, desire and would be very odd on this account to praise or blame the non-purposive, non-characterful causes that stretch beyond any instance of human choice and action’. (HG 196) And he goes on to claim that things are different ‘in the case of theistic determinism’.

But this counter-argument clearly rests upon an ambiguity regarding ‘responsibility’, as between ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘causal responsibility’. These phrases are not equivalent, of course. On some versions of atheistic general determinism my beliefs and desires and my character are solely the product of my genes and my environment. It is certainly true that it makes no sense to wag one’s finger at my genes, or to look disapprovingly at my early upbringing, to charge them with moral failure or to punish them because of it. As Byrne says, we do not blame the genes or diet, or the Big Bang. Nevertheless, determinists must assign causal responsibility to them; too many strawberries are responsible for my stomach ache, being high up brings about giddiness, my genetic structure is responsible for my maleness, and so on.

Byrne’s presentation of his counter-argument, with its reference to appropriateness, and customs and institutions, makes it seem as if the attribution of personal responsibility is merely a matter of human convention. But if, according to Flew’s general outlook, it is perfectly in order to hold me responsible for some voluntary action that I perform, but not to hold my genes responsible, and if this is based upon a set of human conventions, or ‘paradigm cases’ of free and voluntary action, as Flew used to argue, then why (by the same token) is there a reason to blame God but not me for my vicious actions? If in the matter of ascribing responsibility to human actions we choose to ignore the causal role that genes play, why may we not, in a similar way, choose to ignore the causal role played by God’s ordaining what I do? Flew’s and Byrne’s answer is: because God himself, unlike our genes, has motives, beliefs and intentions. But they have not shown why this is a telling difference.